The Geneva II International Conference on Syria is probably the most ill- prepared, ill-conceived conference of its kind in recent memory. Its two main sponsors; The United States and Russia after months of discussions could not develop a minimum set of substantive conditions that could at least guarantee that the two warring parties would be able to agree on an agenda for the talks, let alone on mechanisms to achieve the ostensible core objective of the conference, that is to create a “transitional governing body (that) would exercise full executive powers…on the basis of mutual consent” as was stated in the final communique reached in Geneva on June 30, 2012.
In the months and weeks of torturous discussions and machinations preceding the conference, it looked at times that the mere convening of the conference, in order to start the “process” of negotiations has become the objective in itself. And since the prospects of political success ranged from nil to zero, some of the parties involved began to lower their expectations and focus on those limited tactical measures included in the communique such as local cease fires, humanitarian corridors and urgent relief efforts.
The two main opposing parties; The Syrian government and the Syrian opposition came to Geneva reluctantly and each party was “delivered” by its sponsor, the U.S. and Russia. However, what makes the prospects of success so low are the radically different ways in which the Syrian parties and their sponsors frame the nature of the conflict, its evolution, and its resolution.
The Syrian government and the Syrian opposition came to Geneva reluctantly and each party was “delivered” by its sponsor, the U.S. and RussiaHisham Melhem
The competing narratives of what happened, and the clashing visions of what should happen in the absence of a clear mediating role for the three convening parties; the U.S., Russia and the United Nations could lead to a quick unraveling of the conference. President Assad never explicitly recognized nor accepted the core term of reference of Geneva I that is the concept of establishing a “transitional governing body” for a post-Assad Syria.
He is not about to sign on his own political demise. From the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations in early 2011, and long before the emergence of radical Islamist armed groups, Assad framed the conflict as a radical, Islamist armed rebellion bent on destroying his so-called modern, inclusive and secular state.
Assad was diabolically successful in convincing many of his Alawites co-religionists that they are engaged in an existential struggle with radical Sunnis who will show them no quarter if they prevailed. Later on, the ugly sectarian rhetoric of some extremist Sunni groups and more importantly their gratuitous violence against non-Sunni minorities particularly the Christians, including threatening and attacking ancient churches and monasteries particularly in the iconic cities of Maaloula and Saydnaya, played into Assad’s hand and allowed him to claim that he is the protector of the Christians.
The cruel irony is that Assad, whose governing edifice, is steeped in sectarianism, even before the radical Sunni Islamists emerged as a significant fighting force, had initiated a campaign of brutal “sectarian cleansing” of whole majority Sunni inhabited villages and large Sunni neighborhoods in towns and cities close to the Allawite dominated Syrian coast.
Assad believes, and he is partially right that the recent tactical military successes that his forces achieved, thanks to stepped up military support from Russia and most importantly from Iran and its proxies; the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites volunteers, have improved his negotiating position and may have convinced him that he could prevail, even if he did not achieve a decisive military victory. Assad’s arrogance was on display on the eve of Geneva II when he declared in an interview with AFP that “we can say that the chances for my candidacy (for a third term) are significant.”
Walid al-Muallem, Assad’s foreign minister and the head of his delegation at Geneva framed the struggle in Syria in a vitriolic, crass and deceptive way as one between a secular modern state and Islamist extremists and terrorists some of them from Syria but many of them from abroad, financed and supported by Arab states, Turkey, the United States and other Western countries.
Al-Muallem’s performance was both outrageous and surreal; a classic blaming the victim obnoxious act, while pretending that his country – with its known stellar history as a practitioner and sponsor of terrorism- is merely an innocent victim of these modern day fanatic hordes that descended on Syria from the Caucasus and the Central Asian Steppes. Maybe because Al-Muallem was in Montreux, he may have convinced himself that he was really representing Switzerland not Syria.
Not surprisingly, Russia sees the conflict in Syria through the same prism. The Russians paint the whole Syrian armed opposition as one whole undifferentiated radical Islamist movement similar to those operating in Chechnya and Dagestan. At Montreux, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov challenged Secretary Kerry’s insistence that Assad should be excluded from the transitional authority, and provided Syria with a political cover arguing that Kerry’s position constitutes an “attempt to predetermine the outcome of the process.”
The shadow of Iran
Much has been said and written about how Iran has been invited, and then disinvited. But, regardless of the details, Iran’s shadow will weigh heavily on Geneva II and its proceedings. Many of the countries present at Montreux, provide the combatants with political, material or military support. Only Iran is fighting directly with the Assad regime through its Revolutionary Guards elements, its training of special Syrian units and militias, and by providing badly needed technical support and supervision.
More importantly, Iran is providing the Assad regime with advanced weapons, and wide logistical support. It is not an exaggeration to say that Iran’s military involvement, along with the forces of its proxy Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militias saved the regime last year from suffering serious military setbacks. One could argue, that at this stage in the Syrian conflict, Iran is more important than Russia for the survival of the Assad regime.
Secretary Kerry delivered a powerful speech and spoke with passion about the plight of the Syrian people under the Assad regime that killed more than 130 thousand Syrians “by guns by tanks, by artillery, by gas, by barrel bombs by Scud missiles”. Then he moved to the core issue at stake, that is explaining what “mutual consent” means, saying forcefully “that means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government”. He added indignantly “there is no way – no way possible in the imagination- that the man who has led the brutal to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.”
However, Secretary Kerry correctly, did not articulate his vision of post-Assad Syria, stressing mainly the need to remove Assad and his close lieutenants. After all that is not his brief or his mission for it is the duty of the opposition.
Yet, for all his commendable passion and moral commitment to help the Syrian people, there are no indications that Kerry can convince the Obama administration to come up with a coherent approach to translate that moral passion into concrete political action, or to provide the moderate Syrian opposition with the material and military wherewithal to continue the struggle if and when Geneva II collapses.
Kerry spoke repeatedly about the tough road ahead, the complex negotiation, but he kept stressing the importance of beginning the “process” of negotiations, and the international support for the conference. However, for the conference to proceed, the U.S. should remain hands on, and when necessary to help the opposition, and maybe providing some bridging proposals. We still have no clear idea about the role of three sponsors of Geneva II.
While Kerry is fully aware of the challenge of sectarianism in Syria, and he consistently warns against a sectarian spillover from Syria that would engulf the region, he does not necessarily reduce the conflict to a solely sectarian struggle or frame it as an intractable civil war. A passionless President Obama on the other hand from the beginning of the Syrian uprising framed it as “somebody else’s civil war” and that is one main reason he does not want to get involved in it.
On the eve of Geneva II, Obama framed the struggle in Syria and the region as a Sunni-Shiite one, and he told the New Yorker Magazine about his hope of creating “equilibrium” between the Sunni Arab Gulf states and Shiite Iran. Obama again defended his decision not to get involved directly in the Syrian conflict, saying that “the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill- equipped, ill-trained and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions...”
After the recent documented revelations that the Assad regime tortured and starved to death more than 11,000 Syrians, senior American officials, who confirmed that they had known that there are thousands of photos of these victims two months before they were released publicly, made it clear that such atrocities, which constitute war crimes as Secretary Kerry said, will not alter President Obama’s basic position on Syria. It will not be unfair to say, that Obama in his pronouncements, actions, or inactions is already post-Syria.
A vision in search of an opposition
Few weeks ago I urged the Syrian opposition to participate in Geneva II not because I believed it will necessarily succeed, but mainly to use the venue to address the humanitarian needs of the Syrians but mainly to introduce themselves from that important venue to the Syrian people and the rest of the world. I thought that it was imperative for the non-religious opposition to articulate clearly their long-awaited vision for post-Assad Syria, the nature of the political alternative to the ossified Baath rule, and how they see the structure of the transitional governing authority.
Montreux should have been the venue for the opposition to go beyond saying we want the overthrow of Assad and to have a representative government. It is extremely important for the opposition in Geneva to say clearly and unequivocally that it is committed to establishing a civil state in Syria, guaranteeing equality of citizenship regardless of religion and ethnicity or gender, to denounce sectarianism regardless of its perpetrators. Unfortunately, some well-known opposition members, including secularist Christians acted like apologists to extremist Islamist groups such as “jabhat al-Nusra”, and refused to denounce their transgressions, just because they were fighting the regime.
The legitimate concerns of the religious minorities (given the violence that the Christians of Iraq and Egypt have been subjected to) should be addressed openly, because Syria cannot be ruled as a modern state without the minorities’ full participation as equal citizens. The opposition should be clear and specific. For example, will the Kurds in the new Syria be able to establish autonomy and enjoy their full cultural rights?
How will the new Syria treat the members of the Baath party in the bureaucracy who did not play a direct role in oppressing fellow Syrians, in other words how to avoid the ugly aspects of “de-Baathification” in Iraq following the American invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussain’s regime?
It is true that the opposition, fractured as it is, succeeded in forcing the regime to go to Geneva and to implicitly recognize it as a legitimate representative of large strata of Syrians who reject the regime in its entirety. However, this symbolic development may be in vain, if the opposition fails in using Geneva II to convince the Syrians and the world that they do have a realistic governing alternative and a democratic political vision of a modern inclusive civil state for a new Syria.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem